#14 Contextual Definition

by Steven Cerri on October 26, 2006

”Define your context, get your management style!”

Good evening!

So ultimately we get back to the fundamental, basic question and that is:

What is the best management style to use in a given situation?

By now, after reading my last three blogs, you probably get that achieving results and selecting the management style that best achieves results is not just about the qualifications of the direct report or team being managed. In fact, I’m finishing a book right now and I’ve sent pre-publication copies out to friends, colleagues, and clients. Recently in talking to one who has been reviewing my book I asked him what was the one main idea he thought he’d gotten out of the book. (He’s a newly promoted manager in a technical company.) His response was:

“I now know that to the question ‘What’s the best management style in a given situation?’ the only answer that makes sense is ‘It depends. It depends on those six parameters you list.”

That is the answer to Andy Card’s situation. It’s the answer to what has happened at Hewlett Packard. It’s the difference between the Army sergeant and the software business development manager.

And the best management style depends on the “Context Definition” which is defined by the following six parameters:

1. The expertise of the manager as compared to the expertise of the individual or team being managed

2. The risk of the task or project

3. The time frame of the task or project

4. The complexity or interfaces of the task or project

5. The learning outcome desired by the manager for the individual or team being managed

6. The management style preferred by the individual or team being managed

These six parameters define the context and will direct a manager to the best management style for a given situation.

These six parameters make up the Contextual Definition©. The contextual definition then leads the manager to a sliding scale of management styles from authoritative/directive to participative/coaching. The more the expertise lies with the manager, the more the task has high risk or a short timeframe or is complex, the more the manager would want to lean toward an authoritative/directive management style. The more the expertise lies with the team, the risk is low, the timeframe is longer, and the task is less complex, the more the manager would lean toward a more participative/coaching management style.

It’s quite clear that in the case of the Army sergeant, the risks are high, the timeframe is short, and the expertise generally lies with the sergeant. Therefore, the more directive approach works best.

In the case of the software development manager, the immediate risks are low, the timeframe will be relatively long, the complexity of the immediate task is low, and the expertise lies with the team. Therefore, the better management style is a more participative/coaching style.

In the case of HP the same thought process holds true. When the HP board went looking for a replacement for Carli Fiorina, they went looking for someone with a “different management style”. From my vantage point, it’s not even appropriate to ask what management style an HP CEO should have. Carli Fiorina shouldn’t have had one, major management style to work from. Mark Hurd shouldn’t have one, major management style to work from. Their management styles should be tailored to the specific task to be achieved based on the six parameters that define the Contextual Definition. Their management style should change. A leader or manager shouldn’t be capable of being “pigeon-holed” as this type of manager or that type of manager.

The downfall of Carli Fiorina is that she joined HP with the idea that a specific management style, hers, was what was needed. It wasn’t a fit and a match and she was ultimately forced out. Now Mark Hurd is at the helm and he seems to have been labeled with a specific management style, one that currently is a fit and a match. As HP changes will Mark Hurd change his management style as well? Does he change it now as the tasks change on a daily or hourly basis or is the culture in such a backlash that his general style will due, for now, even if it doesn’t vary much?

Watch the news and the results will tell us.

Be well

Steven Cerri

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